The idea that filmmakers and studios might use the Internet to “listen to the fans” has been a common wishful theory at least since the early days of Ain’t It Cool News—in other words, for nearly two decades now. But what happens when the filmmakers themselves join the fan clamor? If this line hadn’t been crossed already, it came close recently when writer-director Neill Blomkamp, of District 9 and the upcoming Chappie, posted concept art from a purportedly abandoned or near-dead pitch he made to Fox for a new Alien sequel. Not long after the art received plenty of positive online attention, Blomkamp and Fox announced that the project was, in fact, going into development (though a concrete release date has not been set). Similarly, test footage of Ryan Reynolds as the Marvel Comics mercenary Deadpool, who Reynolds briefly played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, seemingly played a part in shifting that project from much-discussed also-ran to a picture with an actual release date. If Fox currently looks like the studio most likely to let online buzz influence its development slate, the creative-side master of this technique may be Vin Diesel, who seems to use his Facebook page to will himself into conversations about Marvel, DC, and whatever other nerdy properties he seems personally interested in as a “merging of brands,” to use his charmingly weird coinage for “doing a movie for a big company.”
On its surface, these projects have the shine of wish fulfillment: Diesel and Reynolds, bless them, seem genuinely interested in comic books, and it’s easy to imagine Peter Jackson protégé Blomkamp geeking out over the prospect of rescuing the Alien series. Blomkamp seems like a particularly simpatico entrant of the revolving door passed through by the likes of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Since the failure of Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection, Fox has floundered with one of its most iconic franchises, turning the H.R. Giger-designed beasts over to the anonymous pulp silliness of Alien Vs. Predator and building around their familiarity with Ridley Scott’s much-hyped Prometheus, still purported to be getting its own sequel as Blomkamp begins work on a fifth proper Alien. Blomkamp, by letting the public in on his concept art, has become a de facto fan choice—whether by a fluke of the new metrics of buzz or savvy manipulation of same.
Despite the newfound hype for Blomkamp, however, Prometheus may be an instructive test case, because there’s a better-than-decent chance that a lot of people—a lot of “fans,” anyway—will be disappointed by whatever the director cooks up. That’s not a knock on Blomkamp’s talent; I don’t love either of his first two movies and haven’t yet seen Chappie, but I admire his imagination and his facility with inventive, story-serving special effects. Rather, skepticism over the looming gulf between current excitement and eventual fan reactions comes mostly from a quick study of Alien history. Plenty of people were hotly anticipating Fincher’s Alien 3, only to leave the film confused and depressed. Alien: Resurrection was thought of as a potential course corrector; instead, it drove the franchise into hibernation. Prequel/spin-off/whatever Prometheus promised salvation through a succession of elegant, exciting trailers; judging from the imprecise and intemperate metric of Internet comments, it’s one of the most-hated films of all time.
Judging from the movies themselves, though, the Alien series remains fascinating. Fincher and Jeunet, while inarguably less successful than Scott and Cameron, delivered Alien entries with their personal signatures, and Prometheus is much better than its current reputation. Divorced from the inflated expectations that come with Ridley Scott returning to such hallowed ground, and saddled with the more earthbound expectations that should accompany any Ridley Scott movie that’s not Alien or Blade Runner, it’s a beautifully designed sci-fi horror movie with immaculate imagery, one indelible character in the form of Michael Fassbender’s android David, and several stunning set pieces. But its sometimes-clumsy plotting fails to recapture the minimalist magic of the 1979 original. How could it, really, without rehashing it?
This is what Blomkamp is getting into. The Alien series, with its ever-changing auteurs, offers near-ideal conditions for a perpetual disappointment machine: Directors have one shot to leave their mark, and odds are pretty good that exacting or idiosyncratic stylists will not produce a crowd-pleasing or even niche-pleasing take on the material each time out. But spaceship Alien is hardly the only such disappointment machine in the business. In reaction to the news about a possible Alien 5, Scott Mendelson of Forbes raised an interesting point about franchises whose hardest-core fans don’t seem to particularly enjoy them, at least in terms of percentages. Just as it’s not uncommon to find people who love Alien and Aliens and hate the films that follow–while nonetheless hungering for a “better” Alien sequel—plenty of older Star Wars fans will praise A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back as great films, dismiss Return Of The Jedi as a compromised harbinger of things to come, and damn the prequels as the worthless disappointments of a lifetime. For many fans, this adds up to a total of two unreserved recommendations out of six Star Wars movies, even as those same fans try in vain to keep their surging expectations in check for the upcoming seventh episode.
That’s not to say true Star Wars fans must love anything and everything Star Wars to prove their bona fides—just that fandom often involves grasping around in the dark, desperate to find something that lives up to childhood reverie. It’s like the culture that rejects the new, continuity-free, female-centric Ghostbusters in favor of the faintest, decades-old, Dan Aykroyd-related flames of hope for a Ghostbusters III. Of course, some—really, most—of those reactions were driven by old-fashioned sexist idiocy. (Sure, we wanted to indulge our childhood obsession—but not if there’s gonna be girls there making it all girly!) But these reactions actually manage to seem even stupider considering how much virtual ink had been enthusiastically spilled over the possibility of a third Ghostbusters movie before Sony announced the distaff version. I’m not wildly excited over the possibility of this Ghostbusters movie, only because I think the talent involved could find something better to do with their time. But what do the now-disappointed Ghostbusters III faithful actually want? A sequel that uses the original cast members—even though one is now dead and another seems wholly uninterested—but somehow isn’t Ghostbusters II?
Debates about fandoms, sequels, and which Alien-related movie is the worst are nothing new to the world of film discourse. But it is fascinating to see filmmakers and performers drawn into Internet advocacy, or at least attempting to steer it toward their own artistic and/or financial gain. Blomkamp’s sharing of Alien 5 concept art makes him feel like one of the geeks, and his subsequent deal to perhaps actually use that concept art makes him feel like a geek made good—no small thing when Elysium didn’t exactly endear him to his core audience. Having a self-lobbying sci-fi geek in charge of an Alien sequel provides a sense of comfort that Alien 5 won’t be a direct follow-up to Alien: Resurrection starring Winona Ryder, or involve talking Aliens squaring off against a race of cybernetic Predators on a planet that looks exactly like Toronto.
Realistically, though, Blomkamp offers no concrete assurance. His social consciousness, while welcome, tends toward the heavy-handed, and plenty of good filmmakers have been sidetracked into franchise maintenance. But rather than switch from hype to panic, that potential for disappointment should, if anything, be embraced. Perhaps spoiled by the admirable clockwork consistency—and accompanying predictability—of the Marvel Studios films, some genre fans seem to require assurances that franchise films will be respectful enterprises, safe from substantial risk or experimentation. When fan or even filmmaker excitement over franchise continuations focuses so heavily on honoring fan memories or righting perceived wrongs (like, say, considering a direct sequel to Aliens that may ignore the pesky Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection), it creates a kind of empty comfort, not so different from the comforts franchise-obsessed studios get from brand names.
It’s worth pointing out that franchise attention from filmmakers and studios can still result in good films—especially if, like me, you consider something like Prometheus a good film. Neither hype nor disappointment drains fantasy casting of its nerd-game fun, or makes studio executives superior custodians of Alien, Star Wars, and other properties that have been capturing imaginations since the late ’70s. Similarly, it’s hard to blame Blomkamp for lobbying for the job he wanted, whether it was intentional strategy or just good luck. But this kind of public advocacy does make the prospect of fan-choice franchise-building seem, to me, like less of a nerd’s paradise, and more of a newly discovered route to the same angry disappointment. J.J. Abrams isn’t an exciting choice for Star Wars because George Lucas is the devil and atonements must be made; he’s an exciting choice because his visual and storytelling sensibility is both derived and distinct from the Lucas house style (same for writer-director Rian Johnson, except times a hundred). Paul Feig and company reviving Ghostbusters isn’t (potentially) exciting because the original mythology must be faithfully tithed; it’s (potentially) exciting because of the comic voices involved. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about a Blomkamp-shepherded Alien 5, but sometimes fan excitement can and should be separated from expectations, no matter how many one-of-us bona fides a filmmaker can boast. The first Alien movie involves staring into the space of the terrifying unknown. I can’t recommend that practice enough.